Warships during the age of sail carried a surprisingly large number of children. It was perfectly normal for the five to six hundred compliment of a ship of the line to include fifty or more ship’s boys. They appear in the muster books as either officer’s servant or as ordinary seamen. Admiralty regulations for Royal Navy ships stated that they should be at least thirteen years old, unless they were sons accompanying their fathers, in which case the limit was eleven. But like many such rules it was frequently flaunted, with children as young as eight going to sea.
Sending children away at such a young age may seem barbaric to a modern reader but the navy was only reflecting common practice ashore. The working life for most 18th century children would have started by being apprenticed into a trade at a similar age. In some ways the provision made for children afloat was much better. A ship’s boy enjoyed a diet that was unimaginable ashore, including six pounds of meat per week, and the crew of all the larger warships included a schoolmaster to provide some education to those expected to progress.
Ship’s boys were considered by the navy as an essential reserve of future manpower in training. Many performed the duties of a servant and attended to the needs of their officer while learning from them the ways of the sea. They were also expected to take their place amongst the sailors working the ship, where they could acquire practical seamanship. In particular they would go aloft with the topmen. This was dangerous work, but it was believed that the feats of balance and agility required to handle sail, often in rough weather, could only be learnt by starting young.
There were several duties aboard ship that were only assigned to boys. Weighing anchor was a tough job that required the manpower of almost everyone aboard. The anchor cable of a warship was a big hemp rope, typically twenty-two inches thick, which was too inflexible to be wound around any winch. So a lighter rope that could be turned around the ship’s capstan was used to drag it aboard. The two ropes were ‘nipped’ together using short lengths of rope that had to be detached, taken forward, and reattached as the cable came aboard. As all the adult men were busy turning the capstan, this job was given to the youngsters; hence the naval slang for a ship’s boy was a ‘Nipper’.
In combat the boys took on the role of Powder Monkeys. Just as with weighing anchor, there was a similar division of responsibility when the guns were in action. A naval cannon, such as the thirty-two pounders carried on the lower deck of most Royal Navy ships of the line, weighed over two and a half tons. Running out a battery of such colossal pieces again required most of the adult manpower aboard. For reasons of safety, gunpowder charges were never stored with the guns, but were kept in a safe, copper lined room beneath the waterline called the magazine. A new charge was only issued once the previous charge had been fired. The role of running between the magazine and the guns, carrying these bags of gunpowder, was given to the boys. This could be dangerous work in action, as a single spark might ignite the charge they carried, killing or maiming the child holding it at the time.
Ship’s boys came to the sea by a variety of routes. Many were the sons or relatives of men already serving in the navy. Others were sent into the navy as a way of social improvement. Manning the fleet was a continual issue for the Royal Navy in the 18th century, while at the same time many British cities were plagued by street urchins who were often orphans. A possible solution to both problems occurred in 1756 to a philanthropist called Jonas Hanway. He learnt that Captain Lord Henry Paulet of the Barfleur had, at his own expense, taken a number of street children into his ship. Hanway extended this idea by setting up a charity called the Marine Society. Boys taken on by the society had to be genuine volunteers and in a good state of health. They were housed in a boarding house in London, taught to read, write, count and given some basic sea training before being apprenticed into the navy. Once they were adults they could choose to stay in the navy, join the merchant service, or leave the sea altogether to pursue some other career. Between 1756 and 1862 over ten thousand boys passed through the Marine Society in this way.
Surprising as it is to find young children in the dangerous, adult world of a warship, it was the norm throughout the age of sail. Most of the great 18th century admirals joined their first ships as children. Nelson and Howe both started at thirteen, Rodney was fourteen while Hawke was a relatively senior fifteen-year old when he went to sea.